GTD for academics: The importance of review

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about using the Getting Things Done (GTD) system to manage time, tasks, and life in academia. Here’s the first post.

4680873542_d046edbe82_zIn the first post in this series I discussed the basic premises behind GTD and the problems it attempts to solve. In the next few posts, I want to give a description of how I operate on a day-to-day basis as a professor using GTD. You’ll see parts of my system in the process.

Doing academic work with GTD involves things that happen in the moment as well as careful planning that I set aside time to do at various points in the week. The interplay between our plans and those moments is what life and work are all about. This post was going to be a single post at one point, but in writing this I realized that both the planning part and the moment-by-moment part deserve some depth. So this post will focus only on planning, specifically what is called in the GTD vernacular review.

In the ongoing practice of GTD, a critical piece of implementation is the weekly review. This is a time set up once a week where you empty all your inboxes into a trusted system, review the system and tweak it, and make plans for the upcoming week. Here is a good infographic about how the weekly review works. In short: You iterate through your inboxes, and for each item:

  1. Decide whether the item is actionable or not.
  2. If not actionable, either delete it or file it away in a reference system for later use.
  3. If actionable, then assign it to a project. If the item/action can be completed quickly — less than 2 minutes is the rule — then go ahead and do it now.
  4. If the item is actionable but cannot be completed quickly, then either delegate to someone else or defer it — to be done at a later date, or in a later sequence of actions.

Iterate until all inboxes are empty. That’s right — all inboxes empty. One of the most mind-blowing facets of GTD when I first started using it (and it’s still pretty amazing) is not having an inbox full of dozens or even hundreds of emails hanging over me. It’s still perhaps the most liberating aspect of GTD and probably the one thing about GTD that does the most to improve the rest of my work.

If it seems inconceivable that a person in academia could get his or her inboxes down to zero and then keep them there more or less constantly, I would just say that I’m living proof it’s possible. I used to be very bad about using my inbox as a file system, with hundreds of emails sitting there. When I first started  GTD, I cleared an entire weekend out to set up my system, and it took me about six solid hours to clear out my all my inboxes and figure out what to do with all the stuff. I have heard stories of corporate CEO’s who end up taking entire days to do this. It’s an initial startup expense that can be quite high, but the payoff is that maintenance of a zero inbox is not hard once you pay that price and as long as you get used to having a system to deal with incoming stuff.

Anyway, this workflow gives you a sense of the system at work here. There are many ways to implement GTD, with and without computer technology.  Without going into great detail, the tools I use are:

  • Evernote, for things that I file away. (Some things I file away that are actually files go into various folders in Dropbox. Physical items to file away go in storage in my office or at home.)
  • ToDoist for managing projects and tasks.
  • Dropbox for files. (In 2011 when I was between academic positions, I didn’t have a computer, so before I left my previous college I moved everything I had into Dropbox so I could access it from different machines. I liked that setup so much that I never moved out of Dropbox.)
  • Text files for everything else.

At some point I will talk about these tools and why I have gravitated toward them and not something else. Fow now, the short version is that all of these tools are free (although I do pay an annual subscription for the premium versions of Evernote and ToDoist), cross-platform (including iOS and Android devices as well as browser-based access), simple, and fast.

I do my weekly review every Sunday afternoon or evening, when I am not at work and I have plenty of down time. I block out a couple of hours, loop through all my inboxes, and process all the items that have accumulated. My inboxes are:

  • Four active email accounts: my work account, a personal account, and one GMail account for each of my courses I teach for homework submissions.
  • An +INBOX folder in Evernote.
  • An Inbox project in ToDoist.
  • An @INBOX folder on my hard drive (which is synced to Dropbox).
  • An INBOX folder in Zotero (the app I use for managing academic papers).
  • Two physical inboxes, one on my desk at work (which I clear out on Fridays) and one on my desk in my home office.

In reality, I tend to keep these inboxes mostly clear at all times, rather than dealing with all of it on Sunday. But my weekly review is not done until all inboxes are cleared and all items have been deleted, tagged and filed away, or converted into tasks that go into projects in ToDoist.

During my weekly review, I also take time to do a few other things:

  • I have a text file called “Waiting For” that lists all the items that I am waiting to receive — replies to emails, reimbursements, etc. I review this list, cross out any resolved items, and create a task in ToDoist if I need to check up on something that’s been pending for a while.
  • I comb through my projects and tasks in ToDoist and remove obsolete tasks, up- or downgrade priority levels on tasks, modify deadlines, and so on.
  • Go through my Google Calendar for the upcoming two weeks (possibly beyond) and make sure I have added anything to the calendar that needs to be added, and conversely made sure that I have added tasks and projects that have to be done by a certain date coming up. (This is where I add all my class preparation tasks for the next 5-7 days.)
  • Go through a list of “triggers” to see if there’s anything I’ve forgotten.

This entire process takes anywhere between one and two hours for me. It’s the most profitable one or two hours I spend all week outside of interacting with my family and going to church. I have almost never missed a weekly review in 8+ years of doing GTD. When I have, I feel like I’ve suffered a brain injury — I can’t seem to manage all the data in my head anymore.

So I enter into every Monday morning with inboxes cleared (except for stuff that comes in on Sunday night) and plans made. I have a clear idea of what needs to be done and when. And most importantly I am not carrying all of this information around in my head. In fact none of it is in my head — it’s all in my system, which is trustworthy and which I review on a regular basis. The only thing in my head is what is happening at the present moment and what needs to be done next.

Aside from the ongoing weekly review, there are two other kinds of review that I like to do: daily and quarterly.

Daily review involves sitting down at the end of the day — usually after I’ve put my kids to bed, since I want to focus my time at home on them — and doing a couple of things. First, I try to clear out my inboxes. Sometimes I let things slide from one day to the next, but the goal is to have all inboxes at or near zero before I go to bed at night. Second, I go through ToDoist, look over my tasks and projects, and assign a tag of @top to the top 3–7 tasks that I’d like to focus on for the next day. I like to vary those top tasks so that some are related to teaching, some to research, some to service, and some to personal tasks so I don’t get one-dimensional.

The result of the daily review is that when I get up in the morning, I can hit the ground running and maybe knock out half or more of those top tasks early. (I get up at 4:45am each weekday so I can get in an hour of work before the kids wake up, which allows me to go home earlier in the afternoon to help with homework and so on.) Doing a daily review significantly lessens the amount of processing I have to do on Sundays for my weekly review.

Quarterly review is a special time I set aside four times a year. I got this idea from Michael Hyatt, although David Allen mentions it as well in his book. Once per quarter — I usually try to align it with breaks in the academic calendar of my university — I clear my calendar for the entire day to do intensive high-level reflection on my work and my life. I have a Personal Life Plan that I wrote up a few years ago that I update and a Professional Vision document that I review, to see how I am doing relative to the really big goals I have in life. I also take the time to set personal and professional goals to complete by the next Quarterly Review, and those goals serve as a reference point for my weekly review. Then I take the rest of the day to work on projects that have been stuck in neutral, to spend uninterrupted time to shock them out of dormancy and get some momentum happening.

All of this, in my opinion, is time extremely well spent. The quarterly review provides me with a frame of reference for the big picture of both my personal life and my work. The weekly review digests the big ideas from the quarterly review and translates them into near-term actions, and it clears the decks and gets all my “stuff” out of my head and into my system.  The daily review gets me ready for the next actions. Generally speaking, a regular and varied regimen of review makes me approach work and life more intentionally, and I end up being more in control of things and having better balance.

Next time we’ll see what happens when all this planning meets the real world and Monday morning. It’s not always pretty! But it does work.

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